Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A muted 'victory' points to similar exit from Afghanistan

Editorial, The Age, August 30, 2010

THE US is on the eve of ending combat operations in Iraq. After 2721 days of war, in which 4734 coalition soldiers and 9961 Iraqis serving alongside them died, such a moment might in other circumstances be a cause of excitement and celebration. A year-long withdrawal of US troops and equipment leaves an ''advise and assist'' force of 50,000, less than a third of the ''surge'' peak of 2007. Yet when President Barack Obama stands in the Oval Office this week to declare the end of combat, the occasion will be haunted by memories of his predecessor's premature claim of victory back in May 2003.

In contrast to George Bush's declaration, there will be no fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier, no banner declaring ''Mission Accomplished'' after barely six weeks of war. There will probably be no repeat of the declaration that ''Iraq is free'', marking ''one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001''. Mr Obama will not draw the false link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks, which the Bush administration drew upon to justify going to war on the false pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Instead, Mr Obama has overseen a reassessment of the mission in order to fulfil an election promise to bring combat troops home from Iraq, as did the Rudd government in June 2008. If the job is done, it bears little resemblance to the original 2003 goals for ''Operation Iraqi Freedom''.

Far from being established as a regional beacon of democracy, Iraq and its people fear what lies ahead. Almost six months after national elections, a government has yet to be formed and the two main political parties have suspended talks. As the US troops left, co-ordinated bombings across the country killed scores of people and wounded hundreds. According to Iraqi officials, 535 people were killed in July, the bloodiest month since May 2008.

The attacks have been blamed on al-Qaeda terrorists who, although not active in Iraq under the Sunni-dominated dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, are now a dangerously destabilising influence in a Shiite-Sunni power struggle. While Iraqis' courageous support for elections may yet lead to a more stable, pluralistic democracy, which serves as a counterweight to theocratic Iran, the Shiite majority could just as likely align Baghdad with Tehran once the last US troops leave by an agreed December 2011 deadline.

With combat operations at an end in Iraq, the even longer war in Afghanistan is due for reassessment. ''Operation Enduring Freedom'' came under the same rhetorical banner as the Iraq war - although the architects of the September 11 atrocities were at least to be found in Afghanistan. Victory was similarly declared too soon as the US turned its attention to Iraq, at great cost to the mission in Afghanistan. Australian forces withdrew in late 2002, only to have to return in September 2005. Each year since 2003, the annual death toll of coalition soldiers has greatly increased. Of the 2030 killed, 462 have died this year. Twenty-one Australians have been killed - 10 in the past 11 weeks.

In the US and Australia, the loss of lives, including more than 100,000 civilians, and the costs, well over $US1 trillion, have turned the public against wars that were meant to last months, not years. Defence Minister John Faulkner has conceded that recent losses would ''cause some to question why we are in Afghanistan''. However, Labor and the Coalition speak as one in asserting that the mission is vital to Australia's security and that the Taliban must be defeated to ensure Afghanistan is not a base for terrorism. They have at last agreed, though, to a proper debate on a deployment that could continue for years. Mr Obama's timetable for withdrawal from next July has been challenged by his commander David Petraeus, who says the current troop surge must be given time to work. In that case, the mission will have to be better explained and justified to a war-weary public. What exactly does ''until the job is done'' mean?

The prospect of criminal charges against Defence Force commandos is a reminder that this is an ugly and unconventional war. Military force alone will not bring victory, nor is it the best way to deal with the shifting global threat of terrorism. Without a political breakthrough, which also depends on an increasingly unstable Pakistan, the war could last indefinitely. Reining in corruption, achieving basic competency in government and the military and creating enough stability to enable civil society to function would rate as a success.

It is naive to think that when troops withdraw they will leave behind a country that has been liberated from repression, the drug trade and feudal warlords. The coalition forces that invaded in October 2001 are still obliged to restore a level of order. The result is unlikely to live up to the original mission goals, nor compensate for the human and financial costs of the war. As in Iraq, we may get barely a whiff of victory. A realistic reappraisal of Afghanistan - in short, more honesty about our options - is needed to develop an exit strategy that does not amount to defeat. Time, money and public patience are running out.

Source: The Age

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